03 Verdi AidaVerdi – Aida
Lewis; Rachvelishvili; Berti; Doss; Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio Torino; Gianandrea Noseda
Cmajor 736908

Aida was composed to celebrate the opening of the Cairo Opera House; this production marks the reopening of the Egyptian Museum in Turin. The director is William Friedkin, mainly known as the director of The Exorcist, who has become interested in directing opera in recent years: Wozzeck and Rigoletto in Florence, Salome in Munich and Tales of Hoffmann in Vienna. His production of Aida is not particularly innovative but it is to his credit that he does not try to impose a counternarrative on the opera as so many directors now do. The balance between solemnity and intimacy is well conveyed.

Of the singers I did not particularly like the Radames, Marco Berti. He has a strong voice but tends to be unremittingly loud. If one turns to Jon Vickers’ rendition of the role (with its wonderful tenderness in Celeste Aida) one has a clear sense of how that part could be performed. The female singers are much finer: Kristin Lewis as Aida is particularly fine in O patria mia (Act III) and in O terra addio (final scene). The mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili (we recently heard her as Carmen in Toronto) as Amneris and the baritone Mark S. Doss as Amonasro are also very good. A particular mention should be made of the very fine choreography by Marc Ribaud.

04 Donizetti Roberto DeverauxDonizetti – Roberto Devereux
Marilla Devia; Kunde; Tro Santafé; Caria; Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Real de Madrid; Bruno Campanella
BelAir Classics BAC130

English speaking audiences will rejoice hearing God Save the Queen in the overture, but curb your enthusiasm because this opera is just about the most gruesome and appalling tragedy, made even more gruesome by the dark and menacing but very effective staging in red (for blood) and black (for death) and dominated by a huge mechanical spider.

Gaetano Donizetti wrote three successful operas about the ill-fated Tudor Queens as the topic seemed to have fascinated Italians. Not for long though, as all three disappeared from public consciousness for over a century. Roberto Devereux, being the least popular, didn’t see the light until the 1960s’ bel canto resurgence when the great American soprano Beverly Sills reinstated it into mainstream repertoire.

This 2015 revival by Teatro Real of Madrid was a huge success and its main attribute was the magnificent Italian soprano Mariella Devia, who literally inhabited the role of Queen Elizabeth I, and even late in her spectacular career created such a sensation in New York that people camped out overnight to get tickets, something they hadn’t done since Callas. Now at age 68 she made history with her wonderful control and vocal fireworks and a terrifying yet pitiful portrayal of a woman betrayed and crying out for revenge.

American lyric tenor Gregory Kunde as Robert, Second Earl of Essex the unlucky object of royal fury, whose voice grew more powerful recently, was a good match for Devia, passionate, heroic yet tender in the love scenes. The high vocal standard was carried even further by Spanish mezzo Sylvia Tro Santafé and principal baritone Marco Caria’s heartrendingly anguished performances. A glorious night for bel canto!

05 MefistofeleBoito – Mefistofele
Pape; Calleja; Opolais; Babajanyan; Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Omer Meir Wellber
Cmajor 73920

The story of Faust, a misguided scholar who trades his soul to the devil for another chance at youth and love, has inspired countless writers and composers. In the world of opera, it wasn’t only Gounod and Berlioz, but also Louis Spohr, Ferruccio Busoni, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Alfred Schnittke and of course, Arrigo Boito. Boito’s only finished opera, Mefistofele focuses on the devil himself, rather than the hapless professor. It is significant for another reason as well – the opera is considered an important transition piece between the Verdi period in Italian opera and its Puccini successor. But all was not smooth at the Milan premiere in 1868. Accused of “Wagnerism” and “weirdness,” Boito witnessed riots and quick cancellation of the production. Striking his own “Faustian bargain,” he rewrote and shortened the piece, giving it another premiere seven years later. As they say, the rest was history.

This production, captured here in HD, is opera-as-big-budget entertainment. Opulently staged and phenomenally cast, this is a showcase for Mefistofele, the Harley-riding Rocker and Faust, the deluded Playboy. The sublime Kristine Opolais as Margherita and consistently gorgeous playing of the orchestra under the baton of Meir Wellber add to the incredible aural power of the recording. Equal parts eye candy and feast for the ears, this is grand opera as it should be. No need to shut your eyes or suspend disbelief. Ah, I’d give my left pinkie to have seen it live!

06 Mahler SchoenbergMahler arr. Schoenberg – Songs
Susan Platts; Charles Reid; Roderick Williams; Attacca Quartet; Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573536

Arnold Schoenberg’s quixotic concert series, Vienna’s “Society for Private Musical Performances,” was established in 1918 to perform the latest new music. No applause was permitted at these events, every work (you wouldn’t know what was on offer until you got there) was heard twice, and absolutely no music critics were allowed. The towering figure of Schoenberg’s acolyte Alban Berg personally checked your credentials at the door. Over the course of three seasons some 100 works were performed. The repertoire spanned an era beginning with the works of Gustav Mahler, presented in chamber music arrangements prepared by Schoenberg and his minions. The master would mark up the original scores and leave it to others to do the donkey work.

The most ambitious of these Mahler transcriptions, the song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, was never completed as the series eventually failed under the burden of rampant postwar hyperinflation. It was not until 1983 that Rainer Riehn brought Das Lied to fruition. Over a dozen discs devoted to the Society’s Mahler arrangements have appeared since then. In the current offering the sure-footed baritone Roderick Williams makes a compelling impression in the opening Gesellen cycle which, due to the transparency of its original scoring, works well in transcription, though the feebleness of a mere two violins (members of the Attacca Quartet) is an ongoing concern. British-Canadian contralto Susan Platts, well-known for her sensitive Mahler performances, is joined by the stentorian Charles Reid in Das Lied. The latter is a true Heldentenor though I question the casting of such a powerful voice in this more intimate setting.

The ensemble of a dozen players and their direction by Buffalo-based conductor JoAnn Falletta is admirable, with special kudos for clarinetist Ricardo Morales and the noble horn of Jacek Muzyk. A peculiar low rumbling is detectable in the quieter moments from the session captured at Norfolk’s Robin Hixon Theatre in 2015; complete texts and translations are included.

07 El PublicoMauricio Sotelo – El Público
Klangforum Wien; Coro del Teatro Real; Pablo Heras-Casado
BelAir Classics BAC134

Theatrical works about theatre and its relation to the audience (“el público”) are usually metaphors for reality. There’s nothing remotely realistic, though, about this opera, a 2015 world-premiere production from Madrid’s Teatro Real.

Andrès Ibáñez’s libretto, based on a play by Federico Garcia Lorca, deals with an “underground” production of Romeo and Juliet and the conflicted relationship of the director, Enrique (baritone José Antonio López) and his lover Gonzalo (baritone Thomas Tatzl). Ibáñez’s text, despite frequent references to “love” and “masks” is as surreal as the stage action; I had to consult the booklet synopsis to get any inkling about what was happening.

Enrique’s take on Shakespeare includes horses (!) trying to seduce Juliet (soprano Isabella Gaudí), freshly risen from her tomb. When he then casts a teenage boy in her place, “the public” violently rebels, leading to Gonzalo’s death. Along the way, we see a Roman emperor, Jesus, a magician and a short silent film of animated silhouettes.

What held me throughout as a member of “the public” was the most essential element of any effective opera – the music. Mauricio Sotelo’s “spectral” orchestral score is riveting – rhythmic and atmospheric, with glittering percussion and spicy interludes of flamenco vocals and guitar.

Extended sequences for semi-nude male dancers and an array of bizarre, extravagant costumes make El Público almost as much a surrealistic modern ballet as an opera. Either way, it offers a fascinating experience both for ears and eyes.

08 Einstein on the BeachPhilip Glass – Einstein on the Beach
Lucinda Childs Dance Company; Philip Glass Ensemble; Michael Riesman
Opus Arte OA1178D

Einstein on the Beach (1976) is the groundbreaking collaboration of three New York artists in full career stride: director/visual artist Robert Wilson, composer/musician Philip Glass and choreographer/dancer Lucinda Childs. It’s been hailed as one of the most significant artistic achievements of the 20th century. LA Opera’s website touted the most recent production with “Einstein on the Beach breaks all rules of conventional opera.” Or does it? In a video interview the year previous, Glass was asked to describe the opera then being prepared for its 2012 restaging and subsequent tour. “We’re talking about the elements of movement, image, text and music,” replied Glass. “…that’s all there is.…Opera’s the only [theatrical] form that uses all four consistently.”

Einstein employs all those elements in addition to clocking in at a respectably opera-length four and a half hours, certainly qualifying in scope and scale. Its resolutely non-narrative structure plus its highly repetitive and tonal minimalist score however did pose a bracing challenge to general opera audiences of the 1970s. And Glass’ interpretation of the non-plot aesthetic of Einstein is clearly articulated in the libretto. Singers recite numbers, solfège syllables and short sections of poetry rather than lyrics employed in the service of advancing the story as in conventional opera. This was then a startling innovation, and it remains one still today to a degree.

If there is no story, then what’s the work about? Wilson’s series of powerful recurrent stage images drawn from the famous physicist Albert Einstein’s life serve as the work’s frame. The dramatic device is imaginatively underpinned by Glass’ composition for soloists, chorus and his instrumental ensemble. It’s further explored by the masterfully conceived and movingly performed modern dance sequences choreographed by Childs.

This new DVD release accurately reflects the superb 2012 production I saw at Toronto’s Luminato that same year. Highlights of that performance included violin virtuoso Jennifer Koh made up to resemble Einstein – a lifelong amateur violinist – and the impressively precise chorus masterfully conducted by the veteran Glass Ensemble member Michael Riesman. David Cromwell’s improvised soulful modal jazzy saxophone solo is a standout on the DVD, as is the reflective aria in the Bed scene, both in Act IV.

In the final scene a bus driver tenderly retells one of the oldest of stories, that of the wondrous beauty and boundlessness of romantic love. Isn’t that a theme which fuels many an opera? I find Einstein a touching, moving and oddly reassuring work, one which I’ll be revisiting soon.

09 SimoonErik Chisholm – Simoon (Opera in One Act on a play by Strindberg)
Irwin; Sheffield; Thantrey; Drummond; Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland; Ian Ryan
Delphian DCD34139 delphianrecords.co.uk

Luke 4:24 “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” These biblical words must have been ringing in Erik Chisholm’s ears like derisive laughter. Born in Glasgow in 1904, the concert pianist and composer was promoting the Scottish musical tradition from the very beginning. In addition to incorporating folk music in his compositions, he also co-founded the Scottish Ballet Society and Celtic Ballet. After that, in Glasgow, he set up the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. Aside from bringing the likes of Szymanowski, Bartók and Hindemith to Scottish audiences, he also conducted the British premieres of many operas, including Les Troyens by Berlioz.

Despite all this, he was never offered a position commensurate with his efforts in his native country. So in 1946, when he was offered the Chair of Music at Cape Town University in South Africa, his decision might have been painful, but also swift. He spent the rest of his life there, after some travels to India. He produced many operas, but also composed a great deal, including a triptych of operas – Murder in Three Keys – of which Simoon is the last part. Based on a short play by August Strindberg, Simoon was never performed in a full version during the composer’s lifetime. The subject matter, as gloomy as the uprooted Scot’s preferred music, is a tale of revenge and “murder by suggestion,” as Chisholm has referred to it. Polished orchestral characterizations, Bartók-like cascading moods and an overlapping of Western and Eastern musical idioms are just three reasons why this opera should have been recorded long ago. As it is, with the help of the Erik Chisholm Trust, it is making its long overdue debut – and rightfully in Scotland!

10 Holman PassionDerek Holman – A Play of Passion
Colin Ainsworth; Stephen Ralls; Bruce Ubukata
Centrediscs CMCCD 23016 musiccentre.ca

This Centrediscs release offers a fine selection of works by distinguished Canadian composer Derek Holman (b.1931). British-born Holman’s vocal expertise shows here in well-chosen texts and effective settings with memorable moments. His musical style addresses emotionally difficult terrain with sensitivity and a sure touch, pensive yet not morbid. Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth’s tone, diction and phrasing are praiseworthy throughout, as are the secure support and interpretative contributions of collaborative pianist Stephen Ralls.

A few song highlights: in the elegiac cycle A Lasting Spring (2004), I especially appreciate the setting of Robert Herrick’s To Music, including the repeated text “melt my pains” as the poet asks for a glimpse of heavenly light. In The Burning of the Leaves from A Play of Passion (2010), Ainsworth delivers a heartfelt warning of poet and composer against idle nostalgia in a thrilling passage capped by the disc’s highest note (C). From the same cycle, the setting and singing of Care-charmer Sleepe (Samuel Daniel) with its insomniac repeated treble line, are hypnotic and wonderful. Another subtlety: the final song of The Death of Orpheus (2005) has an insubstantial little arpeggiated downward figure, the ghost of Greek mythology’s most famous musician not rising, but here going down to Hades a second time (post-death) to meet Eurydice in the Elysian Fields. The disc also includes Bruce Ubukata with Ralls, ably playing the clever, often bi-tonal two-piano work Variations on a Melody by Doctor Arne (1999).

11Thread of Winter

Thread of Winter
Leslie Fagan; Lorin Shalanko
Canadian Art Song Series (canadianartsong.ca)


When reviewing (in early 2004) the first solo album by Leslie Fagan, I stated that “she is in a class of her own.” What a pleasure to conclude, some 12 years later, that she remains just as original. Her career has taken her to the world’s most important concert stages, providing Fagan with opportunities to present both traditional (Handel, Mahler) and contemporary (Poulenc, Kulesha) repertoire. She is also active as a voice teacher, in schools ranging from Wilfrid Laurier to Juilliard. It is that latter school’s reverence for the American Songbook that prompted Fagan to record this first album of the Canadian Art Song Series.

Much to no one’s surprise, Canadian composers such as Gary Kulesha, James Gordon, Walter MacNutt, Imant Raminsh, Jeff Smallman and others, have been steadily amassing a repertoire of songs, set to the words of both Canadian and international poets. It is perhaps our ongoing doubt about the nature of Canadian identity that prevents us from recognizing and celebrating this treasure trove in the way the American Songbook is usually feted. I have a feeling that Prof. Fagan will soon change that, at least among her students.

In this first of hopefully many recordings, Fagan is in great form: clear, lyrical, playful (in Six Nursery Rhymes by Peter Tiefenbach) and pensive. She is showcasing not only her beautiful soprano (so reminiscent of her erstwhile teacher, Ileana Cortubas), but also an interpretive range to be envied. Lorin Shalanko’s accompaniment is superb – fully supportive and intelligent, bringing to mind some of Gerald Moore’s best recordings.

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